A theme- based method is a vehicle for teaching a range of skills and content by integrating curriculum areas around a topic. This method of teaching links curriculum strands and capitalizes on students‘ interests, creating a sense of purpose and community in the classroom. By building on their interests and life experiences, young people‘s attitudes, skills and knowledge are developed in meaningful ways. Inquiry and communication are activated by a desire to know more, resulting in enthusiastic participation in the learning process
Key words: theme -based teaching, planning activities, teaching of a foreign language, content perspective, language-learning perspective
A theme- based teaching means that each skill area of the curriculum is connected to a topic which we refer to as a theme. This could be a week-long theme, a month long theme, or a theme for a semester or even for a year. Sometimes themes are very specific. All of classroom activities would be tied into the theme during the unit. We know that research shows that learning is an integrated process, and that theme-based education is beneficial in several ways. Students benefit from the connections made across the curriculum. Rather than teaching each skill or topic in isolation students are encouraged to see that at different times of the day or through different subjects we can learn about different aspects of a larger topic. In turn this helps students see connections and start to make their own connections from one experience to another. It also helps students become creative in their thinking.
Although students may be given a greater voice in the topics they study and the strategies they use, the teacher‘s role is not diminished, but changed. Young people still need teachers to help them reflect on their learning and lead them to make connections between prior and new knowledge. The acquisition of skills needs to be planned and the possibilities for application of these skills in other situations needs to be illustrated. The role of the teacher becomes one of coordinator or facilitator, who maintains a sense of the whole picture and a vision of the skills the students need to acquire through classroom activities.
An excellent strategy for teachers wishing to make the transition from teacher directed to more student directed learning, is to begin planning thematic units with another teacher. Working in cooperation with a colleague - sharing ideas, reflecting on activities attempted, developing resources, planning activities- affirms the skills of both teachers and provides an opportunity to build on each other‘s expertise to create something that neither would have accomplished alone.
The structure and duration of the theme study vary according to the resources available and the objectives of the unit. Often this type of activity is limited to a single day or several half days because of the complexity of organization required.
Theme studies are usually planned for multi-aged groups created by combining the student population in different ways than the usual grade level groups. One advantage of theme studies is that teachers benefit from the interchange of ideas when they come together to work collaboratively. Sometimes it may be more appropriate to group primary and intermediate students separately, e.g. different primary and intermediate activities might be planned for a fitness day that encourages students to strive for personal achievement. Theme days can be wonderful spirit builders and an excellent way to celebrate special days (e.g. World Food Day) and holidays.
The essential notion of theme-based teaching is that many different activities are linked together by their content; the theme or topic runs through everything that happens in the classroom and acts as a connecting thread for students and teachers. Effective theme-based teaching is extremely demanding on teachers in both planning and in implementation; knowledge of a wide repertoire of activity types and resources is needed to plan for students of all abilities to be stretched and learning all the time, and to avoid students spending too long on cognitively less demanding activities, such as drawing pictures. Skilled management of class, group and pair work is needed to keep all students actively learning, even when good activities have been planned. An equally issue also can arise if teachers choose themes that they hope will keep the interests of quieter students. Knowledge of patterns of cognitive, language and motor skills development is needed to plan, ensure and evaluate progression in all areas of the curriculum through theme-based teaching over the academic year.
Theme-based teaching of a foreign language
Theme-based teaching has been practiced since the 1960s. Different areas of the curriculum can be taught in an integrated way, without being separated into subject areas that have to be taught at specific times by separate teachers. Teaching that is integrated around a theme is claimed to better suit the way that students naturally learn.
Many teachers plan their classroom programs around themes, integrating curriculum areas into a single unit of study. These units vary in length depending on the resources available and whether or not the study is extended by the students‘ enthusiasm and interest.
The theme may be chosen by the teacher or in collaboration with the students, or may develop from the interests of one or two students whose enthusiasm spreads to all their group mates. The teacher remains responsible for ensuring that skills are practised, but the subject matter and activities may be directed by the students. They bring innovative ideas, resources and strategies and become committed to the learning process that is driven by their own interests. Learning becomes more meaningful when learners choose their methods and topics of study. Interpersonal relationships between teachers and students are improved when authority is put aside, and teachers become collaborators rather than lecturers.
Choosing theme-based teaching for the foreign language classroom
Theme-based teaching can be used in large or small amounts, and in varying concentrations. In concentrated form, and in skilled hands, it could replace course book and syllabus together. More realistically, it can be adopted for one or two lessons in a week, or for several weeks in a term, to supplement other work, and to help teachers build up the skills and knowledge that are demanded. Even when the course book is used fairly closely, theme-based ideas can provide extra activities. Many course books use topics or themes to structure their units, although this is often a superficial covering for a grammatical or functional sequencing.
Planning of theme-based teaching
Theme-based teaching can be planned in advance, or it can be allowed to evolve —on line” through dynamic teaching and learning, that changes direction in the light of task outcomes, developing and evolving with the emerging interests of students and teacher. The expert teacher will usually need to carry out careful planning of theme in advance, to prepare sub-themes, tasks and materials, and to identify the language learning goals of each activity.
The dynamic nature of theme-based teaching can be enhanced by building in —choice points”, where students and teachers have choice over direction, activity or timing. In a theme-based lesson, students can be allowed to choose a fixed number of activities from a small set of activities.
Two basic planning tools for theme-based teaching are brainstorming and webs. Both techniques allow the connection of ideas in non-linear ways, reflecting the learning process that we are aiming to produce. Brainstorming is a mental process that starts with one idea and then sparks off others through random and spontaneous links. A —web” is a way of writing down ideas and connections without forcing them into linear form as in a list or in text. The main idea or topic is put in the center of the paper or board, and connecting ideas written around it, with lines showing connecting. This notion help start the brainstorming process.
Planning language learning tasks
Having identified sub-themes and guiding questions by taking a —content perspective” on the theme, planning now has to bring a —language-learning perspective” to it, so that planning moves from content to classroom activities, with discourse types and aspects of language use guiding the construction of language learning tasks with clear goals and stages.
Theme-based teaching is considered as a good approach in teaching language because it offers exciting possibilities to students and teachers. There is a real potential for effective language learning take place, because students and teachers open up the language classroom by bringing in the world outside and linking into students‘ real interests and enthusiasms.
References (including internet resources):
- Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners, Cambridge: Cambridge Universities Press.
- Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centered Curriculum; A study in second language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Richard, J.C. 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Ellis, R. 1997. Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.